Since then, there have been about a hundred million different strategy games, simulating about as many different kinds of fighting as we humans have had reasons to fight one another. From the all-encompassing broad strokes of the Civilization series to the individually rendered blades of the Total War games, not to forget the far-flung fantasy tech of StarCraft - strategy games are as diverse as they come.
But which are the absolute top strategy games on PC? Well, just drag a selection box over our bodies and right-click on the horizon, and we will all be on our way to finding out.
Here are the best strategy games on PC:
- Total War: Warhammer 2
- Civilization VI
- Offworld Trading Company
- XCOM 2
- Company of Heroes 2: Ardennes Assault
- Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak
- Endless Legend
- Crusader Kings II
- StarCraft II
- Supreme Commander
With Total War: Warhammer, the iconic strategy series dipped an experimental toe into fantasy. The joyous fun of dragons and magic (not to mention a popular licence) made for mass appeal and record sales, but Creative Assembly did not forget how to make a good strategy game. The character of Warhammer’s factions was channelled into engaging campaign mechanics that varied for the first time, encouraging replayability, and unit rosters that enabled a better Lord of the Rings battle simulator than any other game out there.
All of that is even more true in the sequel and sees CA go even bigger, making it one of the best strategy games in recent years. Again though, this ambition is tempered with craft: the new Vortex victory condition may seem like fantastical indulgence, but it serves the game by keeping the pressure up right to the end, when you would previously be cruising to an easy win. The factions are more rich and vibrant than ever, yet the vanilla-flavoured High Elves are a common sense presence amid all the bombast. So do not be fooled by the dragons and dinos - this is the best Total War has been by the old, analytical metrics, as well as the flashy new fun ones.
If Civ V was the most streamlined the series had ever been, Civ VI is the most celebratory - a 25th anniversary iteration that sheds the sterility of previous entries in favour of a stirring soundtrack and brave new (cartoonish) look. It finds Firaxis remembering that the power of a 4X game lies as much in its atmosphere as its systems.
It is testament to the attentiveness of Sid Meier and his studio, however, that they have not neglected those systems either. Civilization VI has exhumed several of the best additions from its predecessor’s Community Balance Patch, while pushing onwards and upwards with some offbeat new ideas - builders that expire after three turns, for instance, and cities that spread across several tiles.
Is that not what Civ is all about? Pushing onwards and upwards, reaching for the stars? Firaxis will surely continue to do just that, building on these strong foundations with balance patches and expansions like Rise and Fall. And players will do the same as they conceive game-changing Civ VI mods. But even the game that exists now is a classic Civ. Not just a wonderfully colourful introductory experience, but also an intriguing twist on some of the series’ most deeply rooted mechanics that will keep veterans coming back for one more turn.
Want more? Here's our Civilization VI review.
Offworld Trading Company is right at the other end of the strategy games spectrum from Civilization, though its designer, Soren Johnson, also worked on Civ IV. While Civ spans the history and some of the future of humanity, chronicling the progress of mankind, Offworld Trading Company is all about making a fortune by exploiting our little red neighbour, Mars.
It is an RTS without micromanagement, and in which victory is not achieved through throwing tanks at enemies or demolishing their bases. Instead, your weapons are resources and cash, which you will use to manipulate the marketplace not just to simply get rich, but to completely screw over your competitors. That is if you have not made a temporary alliance with one of your rivals, of course - though you might end up closing deals with one hand while holding a dagger in the other.
You might not expect an economic strategy game to be very aggressive, but Offworld Trading Company encourages you to be just as hostile as a warmonger. When you are eyeing up the menus and planning what to build next, what to sell, if it is time to start a hostile takeover of another company, it is easily as thrilling as when you are sending infantry across artillery-pummelled fields or launching sneak air attacks against an enemy stronghold in Company of Heroes or StarCraft II.
And remember Baba Yetu? Probably the greatest piece of music in strategy games? Well its composer, Christopher Tin, created the soundtrack for Offworld Trading Company. And yes, it is really good.
Stellaris, Paradox’s 4X grand strategy hybrid, makes space surprising again thanks to event chains that are, at first, evocative of Crusader Kings II, but end up going much further. Expect mutant uprisings, robotic rebellions, and the discovery of alien texts that make your citizens question their place in the galaxy.
It is not just a 4X game; it is a galactic roleplaying game and empire sim, bestowing a vast array of options upon players, allowing them to create unique, eccentric space-faring species. You can play as a fundamentalist society built on the backs of slaves, or hyper-intelligent lizards that rely on robots whether they are fighting or farming. The robust species creator and multitude of meaningful decisions mean that you can create almost any aliens you can imagine.
And underpinning all of that is the game’s focus on exploration. While most space 4X games stick with one method of interstellar travel, Stellaris gives you three to choose from, each with their own strengths and counters. In one game, the galaxy might be a network of hyperlanes, but in the next, you might find yourself building wormhole stations and blinking across the galaxy.
Stellaris multiplayer is not to be overlooked either, transforming decent human beings into Machiavellian alien tyrants at the drop of a hat. It is easily one of the best strategy games of recent years.
Want more? Here's our Stellaris review.
XCOM 2 is one of the all time greats of the tactics genre. Already. It takes the best bits from the series so far - the savage struggle, the ragtag group of heroes, the devious aliens, the tight tactical battles - and throws improvement after improvement on top.
Once again, you are sending up to six soldiers into the breach, but this time as a group of struggling survivors fighting against a tyrannical alien regime. It is all guerilla tactics, covert missions, and dissidence. You need to learn to make sacrifices, leaving men and women behind so you can save the rest, and you need to learn to swallow loss and failure.
The battles are challenging and varied, full of horrific adversaries with tricky, surprising abilities, but the biggest changes are found at the strategic layer - why else would it be on a list of the best strategy games on PC?. You will travel all over the world, setting up cells, infiltrating black sites, hunting for more resources so you can field more powerful weapons and tools - it is compelling, rather than an afterthought.
And XCOM 2 mods are already great. You can download a corgi gun. A corgi gun.
Want more? Here's our XCOM 2 review.
Company of Heroes 2 was great but it did not quite match the magic of its predecessor. Then Ardennes Assault came along, one of the best RTS games that helped consolidate the series’ place at the forefront of the genre. The US forces and German Oberkommando are fighting over control of the Ardennes, in a campaign inspired by The Battle of the Bulge. What sets it apart from both Company of Heroes and the sequel is the non-linear campaign that plays out across a strategic meta map. The Germans are dynamic, being reinforced by retreating forces, changing the challenges posed by both story missions and the dynamic skirmishes.
While the campaign is only played from the American point of view, the US forces are split into three companies, all with unique specialties covering air, support, and mechanised roles. These companies all have special officer abilities and upgrade trees, and any can be used to tackle a mission. Even if you focus on one, the other two will still be on the map, and can provide assistance by blocking the enemy retreat out of a captured province.
This is the first time the battles in Company of Heroes have had real weight. Previously, winning was all that mattered. Finish the mission and you move on to the next one, starting fresh. Ardennes Assault is a persistent campaign, though, and losses in battle can bring down a company's veterancy and manpower. There is even a risk of it being wiped out entirely, leaving the other two companies to face the Germans alone.
Total War's second trip to Japan, the sequel to the very first Total War, is the greatest game in the historical series, which puts it among the best strategy games ever made. Yes, better than the beloved original Rome or the ambitious and very pretty Attila. It is a more thoughtful and scaled back Total War, in contrast to its massive, very flawed predecessor, Empire.
Lessons had obviously been learned from the more focused Napoleon: Total War. Shogun II’s map is diverse and full of interesting tactical problems due to the prevalence of mountains, but it is also small by Total War standards, and more manageable. This is very, very good, because it means one important thing: more battles!
Total War: Shogun II is undoubtedly the prettiest game in the series to boot. Its newer siblings might be younger and firmer, but Shogun’s got a style they could only dream about, where battles are peppered with floating cherry blossoms and individual warriors duke it out in tense duels.
There is a lot to recommend beyond the base game, too. Check our guides to the best Shogun II mods, Shogun II DLC, and Shogun II user-created maps. The excellent Fall of the Samurai expansion is also a must, particularly if you want to see gunpowder warfare done right, or at least better than in Empire.
Want more? Here's our Total War: Shogun II review.
With Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, Blackbird Interactive have done the seemingly impossible: transpose the elegant, minimalist space wars of the original Homeworld games to a single planet, making one of the best RTS games in the process. Somehow it works. Really well.
It is a journey, across a never-ending desert, on a mission to save a civilisation. Each battle is connected to the last as well as the ones yet to be played. Every unit that survives will live to fight another day in another mission in a persistent war for survival.
Kharak itself, despite just being one giant desert, is a fantastic planet-sized battlefield. The addition of terrain and elevation replicates the three-dimensional battles of the previous games, with the sand dunes providing cover, hiding spots, and high ground from where you can unleash devastating attacks.
Like its predecessors, Deserts of Kharak is also blessed with some of the best art design you could hope to find in an RTS, accompanied by incredible sound design, and a genuinely interesting narrative.
Want more? Here's our Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak review.
Whenever Endless Legend comes up in conversation, it is hard not to gush about it, which is what we are about to do here. It easily earned itself a place as one of the best strategy games of all time.
Endless Legend is a 4X game that blends fantasy and science fiction seamlessly, throwing stranded spacemen against magical dragon people in absolutely the most striking hex-based world. Diverse, gorgeous, it looks almost tangible, like you could reach out and pick up one of the elaborate cities and cradle it in your hands. "Don't worry, citizens. We won't let the horrible man-eating insects devour you and your families."
What makes it most notable are the fascinating factions that vie for dominance over the pretty but slightly apocalyptic world, each blessed with unique and interesting mechanics that set them apart and inform how they're played. You have got the horrible aforementioned flesh-eating insect race, the Necrophage, for instance, who are so foul they cannot make alliances with other factions, forcing them to always be the opposition. And there is the bizarre Cultists, a faction of peculiar zealots that can only construct one city, and must rely on swallowing up other factions if they want to expand.
Surprisingly, it is also blessed with a strong narrative that lends the game a tangible sense of place. Every faction has a unique set of story quests that will inform a lot of your decisions without backing you into a corner, and there is an abundance of side-quests and stories that makes it feel like you are managing a world where a roleplaying adventure is taking place.
Want more? Here's our Endless Legend review.
Crusader Kings II is a murderous bastard of a grand-strategy game. You play a medieval ruler trying to gain more power, influence, and territory in a historically authentic medieval Europe. It is a game of intrigue, war, politics, and religion, played out on a stunning, detailed map of the known world and in countless, complex menus. Really, though, Crusader Kings II is a strategy game about people: your dynasty, your vassals, your lovers, enemies, and family members.
It is this personal element that makes Crusader Kings II so compelling. You are in charge of a family, not an abstract nation. You will marry and have kids, you will die, and then your heir will take over and the whole thing begins again. In between all this, you can use intrigue or brute force to increase your holdings, but the key is that you develop a real personal connection with your characters, your avatar. You will mourn their death and cheer their every triumph.
Usurp thrones, create politically advantageous marriages, murder your wife, and if it all gets too much for you, there is always the occasional jousting tournament or day of hunting to keep you in good spirits. As long as they do not kill you.
Want more? Here's our Crusader Kings II review.
StarCraft II is a sci-fi strategy game about armoured cowboys versus xenomorphic aliens and space elves - what is not to love about that? It is also a classic base-building RTS where you gather resources, build armies, and kill your enemy before they kill you with quick decisions and even quicker mouse clicks.
Multiplayer is a huge part of Starcraft II. Your enemies are human; they will be able to click faster than you, issue orders quicker than you. You will probably lose a lot, but you will get better the more you play, making this one of the best RTS games if you have a competitive streak in you - or if you would rather watch there is a small but dedicated competitive player-base at the esports level.
The PvE campaign is also interesting - Blizzard have combined frantic action with an RPG-like backdrop as you follow the exploits of Terran mercenary Jim Raynor. You will fight through a series of missions, many of which will have unique objectives - like trying to harvest resources on a map that periodically fills up with lava, or defending against waves upon waves of Zerg for a set period of time. In between missions you will explore an RPG-ish hub, where you can talk to people, research new techs, and decide where your next destination will be. Story is hard to do in RTS games, and many resign themselves to cutscenes or in-mission dialogue, but StarCraft II actually makes you interact with the world outside combat, and so it is a more interactive story.
2015 saw the game conclude with the launch of Legacy of the Void, one of our best RTS games of of the past few years, so if you want the whole experience, you will be wanting to get all three entries in the series.
Want more? Here's our StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void review.
Supreme Commander was the game that broke PCs, such were the demands it placed on processors. This future war robo-RTS simplifies resource management and focuses more on creating the perfect war machine. You start off with a single irreplaceable command unit, and from there you build factories that will churn out units to wage war on your enemies.
Nothing genre-breaking there, but it is the sheer scale that puts Supreme Commander up there with the best RTS games - years later, Supreme Commander does not so much break PCs anymore as it breaks minds. A player’s army can potentially reach up to 1,000 units separated out into land, sea, and air. You have to orchestrate a careful ballet of production, movement and attack, grinding down your opponent while keeping your command unit safe, and your factories powered and supplied so that they can create more machines of death. It is brilliant and mind-boggling all at once.
This was one of the few games to officially support dual monitors, which means you can have a zoomable map up on the second screen. It’s a godsend, as it allows you to keep an eye on the big picture a lot easier. Few games are blessed with the same scale as Supreme Commander, and when you take the war online that is where the real challenge begins. Titles like StarCraft demand quick thinking and quicker reactions, but they only deal with a couple of dozen units at most. Supreme Commander demands all of that, and deals in the thousands.
There we are, the best strategy games on PC. But we almost certainly missed some of your favourites, so let us know what you would pick in the comments.